Fest maintains secrecy, but reliably delivers tip-top of current cinema

What: 32nd Telluride Film Festival
When: Sept. 2-5
Guest programmer: Don DeLillo
Special Medallion honorees: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection
Go to: www.telluridefilmfestival.org

One of the few film fests that conjures nearly its entire audience from afar, Telluride — situated in a tiny town in a box canyon in the Colorado Rockies — must also must invest in theaters to accommodate the temporary crowd.

Fest will unveil its biggest showcase yet this Labor Day Weekend — the 650-seat Palms Theater, which will offer state-of-the art sound and visuals in a newly constructed performing arts center. The fest and its sponsors invested some $250,000 in the site, pitching in with the city to build it.

The Palms replaces the former “Max” theater, which had been a temporary site in a high school gymnasium.

“Our investment is primarily in the sound equipment and design, which will turn it, over Labor Day Weekend, from a conventional performing arts center to a Telluride festival theater with an unmistakable kind of identity,” says festival co-director Bill Pence.

That’s one of the scarce news tidbits available, as the event maintains a practice of swearing participants to secrecy, and unveils its lineup only on opening day.

Also known is that novelist Don DeLillo will serve as guest programmer, bringing his particular enthusiasms to bear on a sidebar to focus on American and foreign-language fare from the ’70s that influenced him as a writer. “It’s clear from his books that the man has a deep and abiding love for cinema,” says Pence, about the New York-based author of darkly comic tomes including “Underworld,” “Libra,” “White Noise” and “Americana.” “We went to him based on that, without knowing him, and asked him if he wanted to participate.”

He said yes, but eschewed advance press. DeLillo wrote the screenplay for “Game 6,” unveiled at Sundance this year, about a playwright who ducks out on his own premiere to watch said sesh of the 1986 World Series.

His novel “White Noise” has been adapted by scribe Stephen Schiff for a film to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. A new play by DeLillo, “Love-Lies-Bleeding,” involving an artist who has suffered a stroke, is set to premiere in June 2006 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

In other news, Apple has come on as presenting sponsor — repping a financial boost that Pence describes as “big, big, big” in significance.

Despite the advance hush, festgoers continue to flock to the high-altitude mecca, located in a pricey ski area and staged on a few scant blocks of Western-style streets crowded closely by massive mountain peaks.

In its 32nd year, the three and a half-day filmathon is sure to sell out well in advance, as it regularly does, though single tickets can still be had by spur-of-the-moment attendees willing to line up and take their chances. At $650, standard passes were nearly gone by press time, while the $325 Acme Pass, which diverts the buyer to screenings at a nearby ski area, had long since been snapped up. Some 1,500 passes will be sold in all, with screenings to be held at eight venues, including the new one.

Along with well-heeled retirees out for a pop cultural binge, the fest tends to attract hardcore cineastes who program festivals, screening series, and arthouses in other cities and countries — the very type who trekked to the exotic affair when it was first launched in the early ’70s.

Then, there was only the 242-seat Sheridan Opera House to fill. Pence and his wife Stella had acquired the venue, and decided to ‘throw a party’ for the arthouse exhibitors around the country, whom they knew from their work disseminating Truffaut and Bergman movies for Janus Films. (Janus, along with its laserdisc and DVD offshoot Criterion Films, is this year’s special medallion honoree).

“We were film lovers who fell in love with the Opera House,” Pence recounts. “We told people, ‘We’re going to have this party called the Telluride Film Festival. Gloria Swanson will be there. Francis Ford Coppola will be there.’ And a lot of people took us up on it.”

The rest is history, for film buffs. Big names also flock to the intimate affair, which guarantees the crème de la crème of the current cinema, since only 20 new films are programmed. The filmmakers of each are sure to be in attendance — that’s a requirement of inclusion in the lineup, which will unspool before some of the most influential eyes in the biz, including key press, distributors and Academy voters — a surprising number of whom have homes in the area.

A year ago, the 31st edition drew out stars like Annette Bening — whose perf in “Being Julia” surely got an Academy boost from its unveiling here — and Laura Linney, who enjoyed a special tribute, but no Oscar success, for “P.S.” Also putting a shine on things were Harrison Ford, Ellen Barkin, Bill Condon, Fred Roos, Walter Salles, and guest programmer Buck Henry.

While the particulars of this year’s program remain closely guarded, Pence allows that he perceives it as “the best ever.”

“We think this might be our last one, so we really had to do it right,” he declares, then explains: “We really believe that, and we’ve been saying it from the beginning. We don’t call it the annual Tellurude Film Festival. We say, ‘Let’s just look at this as a gift. Let’s look at each festival as if it could be the last one, and do the very best job we can.'”

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